At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Bridge of Spies “2015”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Historical Drama/ Stars: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Billy Magnussen, Eve Hewson, Jesse Plemons, Michael Gaston, Peter McRobbie, Domenick Lombardozzi/ Runtime: 141 minutes

I think it should be said dear reader that the heart and soul of the 2015 historical drama from filmmaking icon Steven Spielberg known as Bridge of Spies is not in how it is a fascinating history lesson complete with the extraordinary attention to detail that Spielberg has become known for implementing in his films. Nor is it in how the film is also a riveting procedural involving wheeling and dealing from a legal standpoint whilst set smack dab in the middle of the Cold War. Rather the heart and soul of the film is one that actually is created from the personal dramatics that seemingly organically are conjured up by the legal and political intrigue in the film’s first section followed by the spy games in the second. Yet it is around this riveting core that we see Spielberg has managed to construct a narrative, based on a real-life set of incidents that did occur during the Cold War, that doesn’t just cut and dry retell the story for us. Instead this is a film that chooses to let us experience it, define it for ourselves, and manages to breathe an incredibly personal amount of life and energy into it to the point that an audience who watches this won’t just witness a tale unfurl before them. Rather they will actually come to, on a much deeper level than before, comprehend the finer aspects of law, the human ingredient that is the most influential part of how said law is implemented, and the fine and delicate act of negotiation that can quickly turn into a chess match where no less than human lives are what is at stake. Indeed by omitting any genuine action moments and swapping them for a healthy amount of human drama rotted in global intrigue blended together with a sense of personal belief and forfeiture, Bridge of Spies manages to shine as a riveting tale of both “modern history” as well as how one man managed to insert his own riveting story into the mix, and is a truly wonderful example of both a terrific cast’s wonderful abilities, but also of the iconic director behind the camera’s literally unmatched talent for precision both in how he makes films and tells their stories that truly has few if any rivals in the business today….

The plot is as follows: Bridge of Spies takes us back to the time in American history known as the 1950’s, and promptly within minutes gives the chance of being a fly on the wall of a government pursuit that reaches its conclusion as an alleged Soviet spy by the name of Rudolf Abel finds himself being detained in New York. Yet even though he is given both the opportunity to have his case be brought to trial and is given the courtesy of being allowed to have legal representation defend him in court, it is quite clear to everyone that this trial is for nothing more than show and has no real substance or meaning to it whatsoever. To that end, we are soon introduced to the hero of the film, a man by the name of James Donovan. A man who, at one time was both a criminal attorney and not to mention a member of the prosecuting team at Nuremberg, but who is now an insurance attorney more than anything, and who the U.S. government has approached to represent Abel in their little “puppet trial”. Yet, despite the personal and professional consequences that such a case will have on his life, Donovan, seeing it as a “patriotic duty” decides to take the case and actually finds himself slowly, but surely acquiring a respect for Abel. Not exactly as a foreign operative or for his political beliefs mind you, but instead for his caliber of character and his outright and quite adamant refusal to betray either his country or the cause to which he has devoted his life to. Of course it should come as no surprise to learn that, due to his decision, Donovan soon becomes a highly reluctant figure of public scorn in no small part due to the fact that this is the 1950’s and he is actually defending a man that literally everyone else wants to see dead on the street (cause of death open for debate, but number one option would probably have been shot). Of course Donovan further exacerbates the situation when he decides to acquire for his “client” a plea for life in prison rather than the death penalty on the grounds that not only would it be the humane thing to do, but also because Donovan sees Abel as a potential bargaining chip the U.S. government could use if the situation ever arose in which one was needed. Of course it should come as no surprise movie lover to learn that shortly thereafter such a situation did arise in the form of a young American spy plane pilot by the name of Francis Gary Powers being shot out of the sky and then captured and held by the Soviets. Thus, having had the timely foresight to see such a situation occurring, Donovan is called in and enlisted by the U.S. Government to act as their unofficial negotiator in a prisoner swap in Berlin: Abel for Powers and, if Donovan can pull off the miraculous, another American by the name of Frederic Pryor who has been detained whilst crossing over to East Berlin during the construction of the Berlin Wall. Thus it is up to our intrepid hero to travel to Berlin, learn the lay of the land as quickly as possible, and then do whatever it takes to bring our boys home no matter what the cost….

Now at the core of this film is the distinct challenge of trying to make a Soviet secret agent into something resembling an individual we can sympathize with as well as conjuring up a bond between this agent and James Donovan that actually feels genuine. Indeed this because when you look past both the politics and espionage aspects of the narrative, the movie’s core drama, to say nothing of it’s most interesting ingredient, is the never seen, but always recognized, combat for the conscience of Donovan. By that I don’t mean he is torn between love for his country, his duty to said country, or even the law that he has vowed to uphold, but rather his disgust at seeing the people around him so casually disregard it. Plus when you also factor in a bond that is a mix between admiration of a personal nature and genuine friendship, their respective politics aside, with Abel as well as the beating that his image from a public perspective gets brutally dished upon it, and thus we find our main character exists in a world where both personal convictions as well as the conviction that has already unknowingly obtained in the infamous court of public opinion has actually resulted in becoming more vulnerable. To that end, the second part of this film is where we as an audience get to witness how Donovan’s dogged determination results in him getting the opportunity to salvage his reputation as he travels to East Berlin to negotiate this crucial prisoner swap. Yet even when in a significantly more hazardous environment, never once does Donovan choose to go back on what he holds dear, despite all the direct and officially sanctioned “counsel” provided him by U.S. government operatives, and as such handles the incident in a way that doesn’t care about how he looks on paper, but rather about making sure that the situation is handled with character, class, courage, and the highest of integrity possible.

Now it should be noted that just as intriguing as the core drama taking place within the film is the technical aspects that really help the film soar to the heights that it manages to reach. Indeed from the helmer’s chair, we get to witness as Spielberg, per usual, manages to showcase a delightful handling of classically-leaning material that manages to take far away from this particular genre of cinema’s typical manner of doing things. Indeed Spielberg’s unique talent for being able to function in the fashion of a classic film noir without ever steering things into cliché as well as giving both East and West their own distinct contrast is truly something to be admired. Suffice it to say that his helming of this film, as he works alongside a longtime partner by the name of Janusz Kamiński, is to be applauded for how it wonderfully showcases the movie’s gift for making his usage of the film’s environment, the wonderful camera work, and lighting to back up the dramatic elements even when the audience isn’t aware of the master skill on display behind the scenes both more subtle and underscored. In regards to this film’s cast they all manage to do excellent work in the reliable hands of the master filmmaker that is Steven Spielberg, but there is a pair of standout performances that deserve mention. The first of these is film icon Tom Hanks who is brilliantly and spot-on cast in the lead role of Donovan as he manages to immerse himself in the character whilst also showcasing Donovan’s assertive personality and dogged, though some could argue stubborn or bullheaded, determination whilst also conjuring up an subtle charm that helps to not only strengthen his determination as well as his bond with Abel, but also make a likable guy and one we quickly find ourselves rooting for even when 98% of the world seems dead-set on being against him. As for the other key performer in this it would have to be Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel aka the Soviet spy who Donovan not only forms a bond with, but is who Donovan is charged with first defending and then later swapping for Powers and Pryor. Indeed we know that this man is supposed to be someone we’re supposed to jeer at and hate, but Rylance manages to make this agent so human and so, oddly enough, likable that we find ourselves empathizing with Abel and actually, much in the same vein as Donovan, coming to respect the man and see him for the human being, political affiliations and occupation notwithstanding, that he is.

All in all it is safe to say that Bridge of Spies really truly is a majestically historically-grounded film that manages to beautifully blend together both excellent craftsmanship equipped with a top-notch degree of style as well as a riveting tale of expansive legal and worldwide political machinations at work with a more personal narrative focusing on honesty, sacrifice, and resolve at the core. It should also be noted that this is also a terrifically complicated movie that although its basic narrative and core concepts are relatively simple to take in when watching for the first time, will also, upon rewatching, actually leave you as movie goers deep in thought about the much more immersive layers that are present. Layers that not only enhance the overall narrative, but also you and everyone else who watches this film’s immense gratitude for both the real story behind the events in the movie as well as the skilled craftsmanship on both sides of the camera that went into making this riveting film a reality. Thus Bridge of Spies truly is a glimpse at when cinema is not at its most packed to the gills and vigorous, but instead when it is at its most down-to-earth, intriguing, riveting, and terrifically built both in front of and behind the camera. On a scale of 1-5 I give Bridge of Spies a solid 4 out of 5.